Carnevale

Last weekend, we visited Carnevale in Venice. I have to say, there was remarkably less public drunkenness than last time, in Cologne, but there were a lot more people. It was like a giant Renaissance Faire style costume party. The costumes ranged from a cheap 5 euro mask, to elaborate home made cosplay level get ups. I couldn’t help but buy a hand painted paper maché mask for myself, while my husband stuck with a cheaper plastic one with the giant plague-doctor style nose.

Venice is such an amazing city– it’s just like in the stories! Tiny streets spider out from the center, alongside narrow canals filled with gondolas and motorboats. Little arched bridges make a criss-crossing latticework over the canals, while constricting alleyways cut between the tall buildings, sometimes passing through low tunnels or under arched building supports. It’s claustrophobic right up until you reach Piazza San Marco, a wide plaza marked by a huge tower, an intricate basilica and a 24-hour Roman numeral clock, and which opens up to the Piazzetta di San Marco, which holds the palace. The Piazzetta in turn opens up to the main thoroughfare of Venice, the Grand Canal, where ferry boats snake their way around the entire city center, bussing people to the main hubs like the Piazza and the train station. There are no automobile roads.

If you had told me all of this, even if you had shown me pictures, I still don’t think I could have properly imagined this intricate city. Visiting during Carnevale was an amazing experience, in particular, as the whole city turns into one joyful party, but I look forward to returning during a calmer time as well, when there’s more time to see the sights.

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Weeks 68 through 72

This year, I spent the holidays back in the US. I typically only get to see my family once a year, and this is the first year in a while that I have been able to actually get back home. It was really nice to see my family in their natural habitat, as it were, as well as all the friends I had been unfortunately neglecting.

The first part of the trip the weather was a bit suboptimal, and I was super jetlagged, but I visited a lot of friends which was great. The second half of the trip the weather improved but, of course, as it always goes, I got horribly sick (I’m still coughing a little almost 2 weeks later), so I couldn’t do much of anything. I had planned to go hiking and to the beach, but I mostly ended up sitting at home, trying not to keel over. We only made it to Zuma Beach once, but we did see some dolphins (which is what happened last time we were here too). In any case, it was good that I allocated 3 weeks to the trip, since I was still left with enough time to see people despite all this.

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Can you make out the dolphins in the center left in this crappy phone pic?

Being back in the US reminded me of all the things I miss. Firstly, how nice it is to be close to friends and family! I really miss just being able to call someone up and have them be like, “yea! let’s hang out,” spur the moment, without having to overly plan an activity, without having conversations stray towards work, and without worrying about having to reach home at some particular time. I miss this kind of easy company.

Secondly, it’s nice that stores and restaurants are actually open. You can get anything you want at any time. It makes life just a lot more convenient than in Europe, where everything is only open at odd hours. I also missed the wide variety of food, including asian and mexican food (the latter of which you can’t hardly find where I have been living)– and omg, LA sushi! Also, I kind of missed driving. It gives me a nice feeling of agency that I don’t have in Europe, since I don’t have a car here. I also missed not having to breath in a ton of second hand smoke on the streets. Finally, I missed not being rammed into by groups of ladies with giant bags when walking on the sidewalk. I don’t understand it, but Italians just won’t share the sidewalk so you either have to skirt to avoid everyone (which is sometimes literally impossible because you are already at the edge) or just get rammed. They push and shove all the time actually. So inconsiderate.

Then there were all the things I certainly didn’t miss: the traffic, the smog (visible certain times of day over LA), the long travel times (partly due to the traffic, partly just due to long distances), the incredibly high cost of living, and the consumerist/workaholic culture as well, which is, to some extent, the other side of the coin with things being open and available all the time.

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I experienced that culture rather strongly when I went to check out the aerial classes at Cirque School near Hollywood in LA. I emailed them ahead of time, telling them about what I had been working on in silks and they said I should just do a drop in beginning class. So I signed up and I brought my little brother too, who I wanted to introduce to aerial. Unfortunately, this ended up being a terrible introduction for him. It was clear that the teacher at Cirque School expected us to be (a) physically fit and proficient, that is, you can already whip up plenty of push ups, sit ups, stretches, and yoga poses and (b) to be unable to do anything on silks or trapeze beyond basic climbs.

Maybe it isn’t unreasonable to assume that someone interested in aerial is already physically proficient, since it is a really demanding activity, but Cirque School’s tagline is “For anybody with any body.” I am afraid they did not fulfill that promise at all. The teacher was really dismissive of my little brother and of me as well, although I can already manage a few things. For my brother it was exhausting and discouraging, and for me it was frustrating and boring. It was clear that to the teacher, we were just another number on the long list of students that would file through the school, destined never to return– a self-fulfilling prophecy.

It’s like night and day as compared to ASD Punto Fitness in Rovereto and Night Flight in Portland, where my first experiences were so warm and welcoming. The teachers there didn’t expect you to be able to do anything, but they still got you up on the silks even in the first class, and they got you working on strength and flexibility right away. You walk away tired, but you feel like you are constantly improving, and it’s always fun and encouraging. I wanted to share that experience with my brother, but it just didn’t work out.

The end of the trip came much too soon. It took us over 24 real hours to get back to Rovereto, with 10 of those being spent on the most uncomfortable KLM plane imaginable. I wish I had taken a picture of how it was oriented, but basically, the seats were offset for some reason, so you had a seat leg right in front of you instead of an open space, and in our row there were additionally some sort of metal boxes taking up part of that space as well. I am a small person, who can fit in just about any seat, and I’ve sort of come to expect bad airplane conditions, but honestly, in this case… fuck that. This is just degrading. If you fly overseas, don’t pick KLM.

In any case, after a 1.5 hour car ride, a 10 hour flight, another 3 hour flight, 3 trains, and a bunch of waiting around in between, we finally reached Rovereto with just enough time to completely crash in bed. The very next day was Monday morning, when I would start my new full time internship, and in the following weeks, I would travel to Florence and Bologna as well. It was going to be busy!

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Cathedral in Florence.

For my master’s here at University of Trento, I need to write the thesis of course, but I also need an internship of 375 hours, which should be on separate data from the thesis work. In September, I applied to a paid research studentship with FBK, a local research institute. They hired me primarily for the master’s portion of my work (which they see as a precursor to doing a PhD with them), but I will also do a separate internship project with them.

For my master’s thesis, I will be working on acoustic model adaptation for second language learners of English and German. This is a piece of a larger project aimed at automatic grading of English and German proficiency exams for Italian speakers. Some of the problems we will encounter are that speech of second language learners exhibits phonological crossover from their native language, making it difficult for a speech recognition system trained on English to recognize that speech; however, there isn’t enough training data available to create a model trained solely on second language learner’s speech, let alone in our specific domain, hence the need for model adaptation. In addition, the assignments have the students produce spontaneous speech (rather than read speech), meaning we don’t have an expected transcription to train on from our domain. The ultimate goal is to be able to assign a grade to the students the way a teacher would, but the teachers are often not entirely consistent in their grading, which is another hurdle. Long story short, it’s a challenging project.

The team at FBK hired me because I have experience in speech recognition already. Actually, I would have liked to work on something new, to get some more cross-pollination, but this position was paid, unlike most other options here (even if the pay isn’t much after the crazy high Italian taxes), and the topic seems interesting. I also hope there will be some opportunities to work on the language modelling portion of the project as well.

For the internship portion, it seems like I will most likely be working on Russian morphophonology. Since Russian exhibits a great deal of inflectional and derivational morphology, a naïve pronunciation lexicon of Russian suffers from having many different forms of the same word. In addition, stress drastically changes the realization of vowels in Russian, and stress often shifts based on inflections/derivations, making speech recognition much more difficult. The task will involve creating a Russian morphology model that can hopefully alleviate some of these issues. This is a problem I remember encountering at my last job as well, so I am excited to get the chance to work on it now.

For the time being, I have started getting used to my new position, learning Kaldi (an open source speech recognition toolkit), and reminding myself how restless I feel after 8 hour days at work (plus lunch and 1 hour commutes each way). Humans were not meant to sit in front of the computer for this long, and I am afraid my long-term health will suffer (I’ve had some hand pain in the past from this). I’ve continued doing aerial which helps me stay fit and I try to take breaks while working. It’s striking how little quality of working life of the average person has increased in proportion to the massive gains we have seen in humanity’s productivity in recent years.

Anyway, after a long first week at work, my husband and I woke up super early on Saturday to travel to Florence for the weekend. There was a Netrunner (card game) tournament there on Sunday that he wanted to participate in. In my case, I just wanted to see the city. The weather was perfect, so we spent Saturday walking around the city together seeing the main sights, and on Sunday I visited some museums on my own.

Of course I saw Michelangelo’s David in the Galleria dell’Academia, the beautiful painted ceilings of the Uffizi Galleria along with Botticelli’s Venus and many other amazing artworks, but I think my favorite piece of art was Caravaggio’s Medusa, painted on a ceremonial shield, just because it was so shocking:

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All in all, it was a lovely city, though I would say that 2-3 days is enough to see the most interesting things. Also, I was very happy to visit in the off-season, because even in this chilly weather, the city had plenty of tourists!

This last weekend, we swapped the historic masterpieces of Florence for the modern street art of Bologna. My husband had another Netrunner tourney, and since we have family in Bologna, it made sense to visit. Bologna is a lovely city, and though we visited once before, it was under more stressful circumstances, so I am really happy to get a more relaxing weekend here. The city seems to be just the right size, where you can live comfortably with lots of varied things to do, with the nice possibility to get around (both by foot and public transport), but you aren’t inundated with people or tourists. I can imagine it being a nice city to live in, and it’s been a really nice time just chilling.

Costs:

I didn’t break up the costs that well in my log for this month, so there’s a weird misc category with both gifts, groceries, and some other junk inside there, but oh well. It was an expensive couple of months due to Christmas and travelling a lot, but I should actually still manage to stay within budget. (Once again, having a person to split the costs with is huge.) Also, since I didn’t report costs in the last post, these numbers cover almost two months worth.

  • €450 – rent for two months
  • €123 – utilities (internet and gas/electric)
  • €23 – phone
  • €165 – aerial in Italy and the US
  • €385 – groceries, gifts, misc
  • €514 – travel
  • €186 – dining
  • Total (for almost two months): €1846

Weeks 57 through 60

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September and October have been the months of hikes. It’s been surprisingly warm during the day, though the evenings have been chilly. I’ve gone somewhere almost every weekend with friends, and I’ve watched the trees turn from green to gold to rust.

At the end of September, a friend with a car took us on a difficult hike to Cima Rocca. I’m not that accustomed to hiking, though I enjoy it quite a lot, and this hike was particularly difficult. It went at a fairly steep uphill the entire way, until the very end, at which point it became nearly a Via Ferrata style climb. That is to say, there was a metal guide cable, and you had to use your hands to scramble up the rocks.

It took around three hours to climb to the top, with your thighs and calves protesting the entire way, and just one hour to come down, with your knees complaining. As hard as it was, the view from the top was absolutely worth it (though it was a misty day). Not only that, but there were some cool old caves dug out from WWII along the way, and a great deal of fresh air. In the end, this was one of the hardest, but also one of the most fun hikes I have done.
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In October, I had the chance to visit Milan to meet the same friend who I met recently in Prague. Milan was… money. The city center was small in terms of area, but grandiose in terms of content. The cathedral was huge, the castle had a moat, and the shopping/fashion was so high-end, that the cheaper area was the one that had labels like Prada and Louis Vuitton. The expensive fashion district had clothes that looked like they had just come off a model– you know, the weird ones, that no normal human would ever wear.

Although I usually like visiting museums, the one in the castle somehow didn’t impress me. Maybe I’ve been spoiled by the world-class art in huge cities like Paris and Berlin. Overall, two days in the city were just enough for me to see everything, though if I was the shopping type, I’m sure I would have needed more.

The next weekend, I headed back to Saarbrücken (SB) to retrieve my bike, and visit my friends. After a 10 hour commute through lovely Austria, I found myself in Germany again.

I think I have a sort of love-hate relationship with SB. Although I am frustrated at the quality of schooling, I can now look back and realize that it was better than what I will see here this year, because there were many different professors to work with, and many different course offerings. In addition, SB has an amazing community of students. Everyone in the local program is studying the same thing, so you have a lot of people to work with, and a lot in common with those around you.

Here in Italy, I have found it difficult to integrate into the local community in the same way. Everyone in CIMeC is studying cognitive neuroscience together, so they share all the same classes and have the same interests. It’s possible that we have more in common than I think, but I don’t share any classes with them, so I wouldn’t know anyway. The computer science students in Povo also share all their classes, and by virtue of this, have also formed a tight knit community. Basically, I am rather on the periphery of what is going on here. So while my personal life here is good, my academic life is shitty.

Coming back to SB reminded me of everything I am missing out on.

I returned from SB feeling rather disappointed, but fortunately, a friend was coming to visit for a couple of days, which helped lift my spirits. We wanted to show her around some of the sights, so we headed back into the mountains. The first day was unfortunately misty again when we took a small trip an a hike just above Rovereto. The second day was a little clearer, and we headed up higher, up a windy road into the hills nearby, where we hiked through falling tree leaves, to the top of a large hill.

My friend only had a couple days with us, and once again, I had to say goodbye. One great thing about my master’s program is that I get to meet a whole ton of amazing international people. However, the entire experience is basically a revolving door of goodbyes, as people finish their masters and head back to their home countries, and you wonder all the while if you will ever see them ever again.

In any case, I had to bear my sadness on the move, because the next day we went on a trip with the university right back in the mountains, to Rio Novella. I stumbled through this trip, a bit tired after the last three days, but happy to chat with all the various international students from different departments. We went through apple orchards, to a really steep canyon, and through a gorge to a church on top of a cliff. You’re probably tired of hearing this– the views were amazing.

Finally, at the very end of the month, I visited the Castello Beseno, which is a castle on top of a hill not far from Rovereto. It was a peaceful day, and there weren’t many tourists there, so we had a lovely stroll throughout the whole thing. It was a real medieval castle, like the kind you read about in history books! Although I’ve been in Europe for a year now, I didn’t visit that many castles last year, and as an American, I am still impressed by these historic structures.

Apart from taking trips and just enjoying life… I have to admit that in terms of work, I’ve done very little this month. As I mentioned before, there doesn’t seem to be that much for me to do in the department here. I’m only taking a few classes, and they aren’t that good. The machine learning class in Povo has a really good instructor, but strangely it doesn’t have any homework, so I’ve just had to do my best to study on my own. The Human Language Technologies course in Rovereto is possibly the worst course I have ever taken. The topics are all repetition from last year’s coursework, and the lecturing is both boring and uninformative.

I’m quite frustrated (but unsurprised) that my second year university does very little to coordinate a curriculum that will be useful to second years. As I was warned by my second year colleagues last year, in the LCT program you basically end up doing Year 1 twice. My hope is that I will be able to teach myself everything that I haven’t managed to learn yet. I mean, I mostly taught myself last year anyway. I’ve been working on linear algebra in my spare time, but right now, my main goal is to find an internship and a master’s thesis topic.

At least daily life in Rovereto has been good.

However, there’s one more bit of frustrating news. My husband has been in Italy for almost two months now, and my stay permit is nowhere in sight. Once I do get the stay permit, it will take him probably at least a week to get the appointment with Questura (immigration) sorted so that he can be allowed to stay provisionally in Italy. However, with the Shengen visa waiver that Americans get, he is only allowed to be in Europe for 90 out of each 180 days. That means he has to go home ASAP, so that he can save some days for doing all the paperwork once I get my stay permit and he returns. So I guess he’ll be going back for Thanksgiving, and I’ll be here all alone for a while again.

Costs:

It seems like it does help to have a second person splitting costs. Even with all the dining out and travel, I’ve managed to stay under budget. However, keep in mind, my utilities payment has not been charged yet (it will be very expensive at the start of November because of move-in costs, but should be much cheaper after that), and my internet bill was low I think because of last month’s deposit payment.

I see a lot of extraneous items below. It’s time to think about reigning it in again. Phone is too high, and I should probably finally pull the plug on Project Fi… I am just such a sucker for the convenience. The bouldering gym passes will eventually get used, but I am going to swap to mainly doing aerial now (I will be ramping it up to twice a week), so those were not really a necessity after all. The miscellaneous category was just silly spending. As usual, all the dining out is ridiculous. I will say that I won’t feel bad about the coats, because I got a seriously insane discount there.

  • €235 – rent
  • €14 – internet
  • €60 – phone (I should probably drop Project Fi, since the European plans are way cheaper…)
  • €50 – bouldering gym passes
  • €150 – aerial silks classes
  • €60 – transport, misc stuff for the house
  • €55 – a coat and a warm jacket for winter (fantastic thrift store price)
  • €231 – groceries
  • €120 – dining (including amazing gelato at Zenzero in Rovereto!)
  • Total: €975

The Drive

 

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View of a road from the train through Austria.

I loved taking long road trips around the US, both seeing new destinations, as well as driving there. We’d gather up all our things– our clothes, our food, our tents, our games– and we’d head off towards the forest of huge Sequoias in the North, or the vast deserts to the East. Even when we just took day trips to the hills nearby or the beach an hour away, I never minded driving. When we left in the morning (or let’s be real, in the early afternoon, since we never got out on time), the car trip meant that the fun was all ahead. When we started on our way home, usually long after the sun had set, it meant our comfy beds were waiting for us. On dark stretches of road, we could see the stars outside the car window.

Sometimes, later, when I was the one behind the wheel, driving in the car felt like both my adventure and my home. Often, I felt like I could easily skip my exit on the freeway, and just keep going into the sunset, to find whatever waited for me at the edge of the world.

But I never did keep going. I always took the exit. Why did I do that? The world is so vast and there’s so much to see. Why not just let the moment take you away? I guess there was always a reason: work in the morning, people waiting at home, laziness to make the trip back, discomfort at the thought of facing the unknown. Maybe the reasons made sense, or maybe they were just excuses. In any case, I never answered the call of the road.

Now, I don’t have a car, and I don’t have the same chance. Taking the train is just not the same. I don’t know if it’s the other people chatting nearby, or if it’s just the constant foreignness of everything around me, but there is neither the excitement of adventure, nor the anticipation of homecoming. Rather, there is a feeling of constant displacement, like my trip is anchored between nowhere and nowhere else.

On the train, I can’t just skip my exit, and let the rails carry me away– the conductors don’t take a liking to that. On the train, I can’t let my mind wander as I become a part of the vehicle, controlling its motions over the smooth asphalt as easily as I control the motion of my own body. On the train, I can’t stop to grab a bite at an interesting hole-in-the-wall, or to explore a little-traveled corner of the world.

Instead, I must submit to the vehicle and the system propelling it onwards. I must agree with the system on my intentions ahead of time, and accept its plan for me. I must fight the timetables, and struggle through the crowds, and all my things must fit in a handy bag. Oftentimes, I don’t even get the window seat.

Of all things, I never thought I would miss the drive.

Weeks 52 through 56

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I’ve talked a lot about getting an apartment with Internet, working on my stay permit, and picking courses. What I didn’t mention, is that I also took a number of small trips over the course of the last month. It turns out that this year I am living in what is probably of the most beautiful places in the world. I don’t have a car here, of course, so, unfortunately, I don’t have the opportunity to just take off and see everything, but I have had some opportunities this month to explore nonetheless.

At the start of the month, I visited Bologna, where my husband has relatives. This trip wasn’t exactly planned ahead of time. It turns out that as my husband was coming here, to Italy, some of the stuff he was bringing in his pack got stolen. That stuff included a translation of our marriage certificate. Our relatives knew a translator that was willing to help us get it done quickly, and this became an opportunity to take an overnight trip to Bologna, where they live. I imagine we could have gotten it done here in Rovereto, but it would have definitely taken longer, and we really thought we needed it ASAP, because we thought we had to apply for my husband’s stay permit along with mine. In the end it turned out that we didn’t have to do this, but rather, we have to wait for mine to come in before he can apply for his at all. By the way, this means that he will probably have to leave the country once his Shengen visa waiver runs out, because my permit will most likely not come before that time.

As a result of all of this, the trip was a little stressful, but it was made worth it by the fact that we got to spend some time with our relatives (and I got to know them better). Also, Bologna was pretty awesome. It was bigger than Rovereto or Trento, but still fairly walkable, and the public transportation seemed good enough. The center of the city is covered in porticos (covered archways over walkways), which helped keep the heat from the summer sun at bay, along with old stone towers, cute restaurants (with delicious cured meat), and of course, gelato.

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Later on in the month, I took a trip with the university to Lago di Garda, the biggest lake in Italy, which we are only a couple hours away from. The morning was cloudy, which was a shame, because it meant the guided tour didn’t want to take us on the hike up to the castle in Arco (apparently it was dangerously slippery). We visited Riva del Garda instead. The other LCTs and I broke off from the guided tour almost immediately, and headed up a light hike to the castle overlooking the town. At this point, the sun broke through the clouds, glistening over the waters of the lake, and showing us a bit of the lovely day that was to come.

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After this, we went and grabbed lunch (we had pizza, pasta and gnocchi) before meeting the tour back at the bus. Next, we traveled by bus to Malcesine, a town on the banks of the lake. By this time, the weather had cleared up and we had a great time exploring the castle there, which overlooks much of the lake. Apparently, this lake is great to swim in when it’s warm, and I really hope I get the chance to come back next summer.

Finally, just recently, one of the LCT students who has a car took us to the mountains. On the way up, we saw a church literally built into a cliffside. It was really funny to see a normal building inside a cliff. It was almost like the stone was trying to gobble it up.

Afterwards, we went on a ~10km hike high up in the mountains, called Forra del Lupo/Wolfsschlucht (Wolf’s Gorge). The hike went up hill most of the way, sometimes getting somewhat steep (but never so steep that you had to climb). We reached the Forra del Lupo part sometime in the middle. It was a deep crevice in the hillside, with built up stone overlooks before and after it. Afterwards, we kept hiking until we ended up at the very top of the mountain (at around 1600m elevation, if I recall correctly). At the top was an old WWII fort made of white stone. Unfortunately, it was at this point that my broken-ish phone, finally gave out, so I couldn’t take as many pictures as I would have liked. However, it’s not a great loss– no picture can capture these breathtaking views.

Costs

The costs over the last 5 weeks are insanely high. This is probably the most I’ve spent in any single month in all my life (except for once when I bought a fancy computer). Move in costs to the new apartment were crazy (a lot of it is a deposit that we will hopefully get back), but our family helped us with a good chunk of them. I also traveled a fair amount, so that added to it. Finally, there’s two of us now, and that makes food and stuff more expensive. You always forget how much it costs to buy all those little things (e.g. cups/plates, blankets, towels, etc.) that you need when you are in an actual apartment, and how much it takes to start off with a nice full pantry.

Note: Below is just what I spent. My husband spent some of his own money as well. We don’t share any bank accounts, so I will probably continue to report on only my own spending, since it’s just easier.

  • €122 – public transport (50 for a pass, the rest before I got the pass)
  • €403 – travel to Rovereto at the start, travel to Bologna, and some smaller trips
  • €111 – dining out
  • €233 – groceries
  • €302 – stuff for the apartment,
  • €49 – phone is extra high due to no internet at home and making tons of calls
  • €1890 – rent, deposit, Internet, apartment fees
  • Total: €1220 + €1890 = €3110

Summer Travels (Weeks 48-51)

August has been a whirlwind. I finished out the first year of my master’s degree, and went on a 16 day vacation full of walking, hiking, and swimming. In total, I visited Berlin, Potsdam, Dresden, the Czech Republic, and Barcelona.

Germany

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View from Berliner Dom

My trip started with a train ride to Berlin. The week was a little rainy, but I still enjoyed walking and seeing the sites, and hiding from the rain in museums. I stayed in Wombat’s City Hostel which was pretty comfortable, although my roommates were coming in and out at all hours as usual, so I didn’t get much sleep.

What struck me most in Berlin was how the history of WWII and the Cold War were woven into the fabric of the city. Monuments to those murdered during the Holocaust and tours through old bomb shelters clearly describe the atrocities of those times. Old pieces of the Berlin Wall are displayed like art pieces at Checkpoint Charlie, covered in graffiti at the East Side Gallery, covered in gum at Potsdamer Platz, and pocked with bomb blasts in the Typography of Terror museum.

However, the monument that stuck with me the most was probably the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe (Holocaust Memorial), not far from the Bradenburger Tor. From the street, it looks like a huge collection of unmarked tombs on uneven ground. From within, it’s a dark and claustrophobic forest of pale gray towers. It makes a clear statement against the crimes of war and genocide, and its prominent location in the city is a testament to Germany’s desire to learn from its painful past.

My visits to these monuments was, unfortunately, particularly timely, because the neo-Nazi Charlottesville attack happened in the US while I was in Berlin. The violence of the attack juxtaposed with these stark monuments that scream for peace and unity just underscores the absurdity of hate and terrorism (not that the emphasis was needed). Maybe if the US had more monuments to the courage of those our country has failed and those we have wronged, we would not be headed down a crooked path today.

On my last day in the region, I took a small trip to Potsdam, and walked around the city center and the Sanssouci Palace and gardens. It was a cloudy day, and the gardens were absolutely massive, so there were plenty of places I could relax without anyone else around. The next day I headed out to Dresden to spend one more day walking around the city center. Dresden was completely bombed out during the war, but it has been rebuilt, and is absolutely adorable. Both cities were worth a visit, but a day trip to each seemed like enough (although I didn’t go into any museums there).

Truthfully, by now, I had completely tired myself out from four straight days of nothing but walking through cities, and little sleep. It was a sunny day, so after I’d seen the main avenues of Dresden, I ended up crashing on some grass in a park and taking a short nap. No regrets.

Czech Republic

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Lovely hike in the Czech Republic

After Dresden, I finally made my way to the Czech Republic. I was really looking forward to going there, since I would stay with a friend who I hadn’t seen in a while. He lived a little ways outside of Prague, which was perfect, because we were able to get away from the city for a while and enjoy some of the beautiful forests of Bohemia. He picked me up at the train station, and we began the business of catching up on what had happened in our lives since our last meeting.

Over the next few days, we traveled around the countryside on old trains that rattled and clacked, past tiny stations with flowers in the windows, each one manned my a collection of human conductors. It was loud, and shaky, but somehow so charming nonetheless, and the trains seemed to run mostly on time (unlike in Germany). On the first day, we traveled to Křivoklát Castle, an old keep where the kings of Bohemia lived in medieval times.  Afterwards, we ate a tasty Czech lunch at a nearby restaurant, and hiked around some of the paths nearby to a small hill overlooking the river. I’m not sure this is a place I would have thought to travel to, had I been visiting Prague on my own, and I really enjoyed this trip.

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Křivoklát Castle

Although we spent most of our time getting a much needed break from the hustle and bustle of the city, of course we did see some of Prague as well. I spent a whole day on my own exploring the Prague Castle, the Charles Bridge, and all the little, towers, and passageways of the city. One passageway was so narrow that it had a pedestrian stop light, because only one person could fit through at a time.

After Berlin, I didn’t feel like going into too many museums, but we did see the Mucha Museum (an art nouveau artist) together. It’s a small museum, but it would be hard to find such a large collection of his work in another city. Both days that I was in Prague, I ate Trdelník (Chimney Cake), which was like the Baumstriezel I had in Germany but with ice cream inside. If only this fried dough street food would spread to the US!

Wherever we went in the Czech Republic, my friend seemed to have something to say about the area, or the people, or the history. He told me about the railway system, the plants in the woods, the architecture, and the Czech nobility. He told me how Prague houses the Czech crown jewels and how during important events, seven important leaders open seven locks to retrieve the jewels and display them to the people. The crown itself may only be worn by a monarch of royal blood, and since the last monarch is dead, it may never be worn again.

My friend had plenty such stories, and this, combined with the beautiful medieval castles, cathedrals, and towers dotting the city, as well as the lush oak and birch woods we leisurely strolled through, made my whole time in the Czech Republic feel like a romp through fairyland.

Spain

It was with some reluctance that I left the charming Czech Republic for Barcelona, where I would split an AirBnB with some friends. I was reluctant to leave, not only because of how lovely my time in Bohemia had been, but also because just two days before, Barcelona, too, was the victim of a terrorist van attack that killed 13 or more, and left over a hundred injured. My friends and I were staying near La Rambla, where the attack happened.

Upon arrival, we saw huge collections of flowers, candles, and small gifts laid out all along the avenue honouring those who had been killed in this senseless act of violence. It was a sobering sight. There were also plenty of well-armed cops dotting the street, but less of a military presence than I had feared there would be. Overall, travel around the city wasn’t hampered too much by any restrictions, but there was definitely a somber feeling in certain areas.

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Gifts in remembrance of the La Rambla attack

Despite all this, in the end, my stay in Barcelona was no less lovely than my stay in the Czech Republic. The place we were at was smack dab in the middle of the historic Gothic Quarter, literally facing the huge Basilica de Santa Maria del Pi. Below us was a square where street musicians would gather to play on their accordion, guitar, or violin in the evening. It was one like one of those things you see in the movies.

On one of the days, we met up with another local friend, who showed us around the city. We hit up hit up all the major sights and vantage points, including Montjuïc and the famous La Sagrada Familia, for which we had reserved tickets online (you should definitely reserve them because the line outside was really long otherwise).

The rest of the days were spent at the beaches in town and at Castelldefels, snorkling near Punta del Molar (we took a tour there with Barcelona Excursions, but I think it wouldn’t be that hard to get there on your own either), and otherwise just splashing around in the perfectly warm and clear Mediterranean sea, which was exactly what I needed during summer vacation!

We also ate some of the best food I have ever had. The creamiest paella, the freshest seafood, the most refreshing gazpacho, and the ham… my god… the ham. It tastes nutty and rich, nothing like what we call ham (it’s really quite wrong to use the same word in this context). I haven’t had food this good for months.

The best part in terms of food, was going to La Boqueria Market, and gathering up supplies for a picnic dinner. They’ve got everything there: a variety of otherworldly ham, various salami, cheeses of all sorts (including really good Catalonian goat cheeses), veggies, fruits (e.g. a kilo of fresh figs for just 2 euro), smoothies, baked bread, seafood, raw meat (including atypical meats like tripe and even brain), nuts and dried fruits, chocolate and other sweets, spices… I mean, it’s just crazy. Wandering through markets is one of my favorite things to do, and this market absolutely did not disappoint, although it was pretty pricey, of course.

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Ham at La Broqueria in Barcelona

Looking Ahead 

At the end of this long and wonderful vacation, I came back to Saarbrücken for just 1 crazy working day to wrap up everything I had to do, and the weekend to pack up my things and clean my apartment, before leaving for Italy. I’m still apprehensive about the move, because I have no idea how everything is gonna go down, and I don’t speak Italian. I’m particularly worried about figuring out how to set up the Internet, which I expect I will not have for the first few weeks. Ugh. Anyway, I’ll just have to figure out a way to muddle through it all.

Oh yea, I also just turned 30, so you know, I’m sort of re-evaluating my life’s decisions a lot at the moment. But I believe (and hope) that in the end, it will all have been worth it.

Costs

I planned this trip nearly at the last moment, and I ended up paying a lot, since tickets to everywhere were already fairly expensive. I also spent a lot while traveling, without giving the budget too much thought. Fortunately I saved a good amount back when I worked, so this sort of thing is possible occasionally, but I think I need to watch it more carefully once in Italy. I’m looking forward to hopefully finding a paid internship while I’m there as well.

  • €225 – rent
  • €90 – health insurance
  • €54 – clothes
  • €40 – phone (abnormally high since I used a lot of minutes this month)
  • €120 – dining out (not during the trip, since I didn’t buy groceries all month)
  • €1186 – everything for the trip (~200 trains, ~250 planes, ~350 accomodation)
  • €90 – train to Italy
  • Total: €1805

Walls and Birds

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Here, the sun beats down brighter than in the north, and the air smells of the sea. There is another scent there too– one of stone and golden sand and very fine dust. Ten generations have walked passed these walls; walls saturated with the histories of those who lived and died within them and without.

Birds gather on the palm trees and stone arches, displaying their many-coloured plumage. Each of them comes from a different place, and their colours range from shimmering green, to vibrant red, to snowy white. Despite their varied origins, they chirp happily to one another, their voices raising a cacophony of noise to the heavens. One flies away, and for a moment, the others fall silent, but only for a moment. They know this place is just a stopover, and each of them understands the pull of the seasons, for they must all hurry back and forth across the world, ever in chase of the best meal in the south or the best home in the north.

The old walls stand as they ever stood, stoic to these comings and goings. They drink the heat of the sun in the daylight, and keep the cold at bay during the night. Patience is their only virtue, but they have it in spades. Some of them are destroyed and rebuilt to serve new purposes. Others are worn down by the years until they are only dust, and this dust is spread amongst​ the same winds that carry the birds to their next destination.

In our travels, we are not unlike the birds. Some of us chase the summer sun, others run from winter’s cold– or towards it– and others still know only that they must leave, but never why. I wonder if the walls are ever perplexed by our migrations, haphazard as they must seem. But one day, even the walls will travel on the wind, just as we do with each passing generation. Perhaps they look at us in envy, wishing they too could so easily experience the change of scenery, before they turn to dust and ruin. Or perhaps they laugh at our whimsy, before turning their faces back to the warmth of their beloved sun.

(These are the birds outside my window that keep me up at 4:30am… but it’s hard to stay mad at them. The picture here, and the one above are from my trip to Malta.)